Riding the Rails: Taieri Gorge Railway

After pedaling 150 kilometers along the retired Otago Central Railway, it was a treat to ride the rails by train. The Otago Central Railway was instrumental in developing Central Otago as an agricultural region. Today day-trippers and cyclists are the main “cargo”.

As we left Middlemarch I noticed a cute café called the Kissing Gate and Nick explained it was owned by Kate, a Dunedin councilwoman. We are more than 60 km from Dunedin and yet we are part of the greater city of Dunedin. Go figure.

My Off the Rails guide Nick turned off the main road at the sign to the Taieri Gorge Railway; we still had 12 km to go in the middle of nowhere. We arrived a few minutes before the train was due. Nick groaned slightly when he spied the little flea market along the side of the track. Their presence signified that there would be a tour train catering to a cruise ship that would delay our train.

The middle-of-nowhere stop at Pukerangi is as beautiful as it is remote.
The middle-of-nowhere stop at Pukerangi is as beautiful as it is remote, even in the rain.

Nick purchased my ticket for me and drove me to Pukerangi. Pukerangi means the Hills of the God in te reo Maori. The isolation does make a person wonder about the choice of the railway terminus (Middlemarch makes more sense). It was raining by the time we reached the station. The train was a little behind schedule and Nick was able to suss out the delay was due to an extra train carrying cruise ship tour groups.

When the train arrived, Nick had a word with the elderly guard Joe. He confirmed that we would experience a delay of about 40 minutes because there is only one track so we have to wait for them to arrive and their cruise ship disembarked an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile people desperate for retail shopping browsed among the market tables. The rain started coming down hard and the vendors covered their goods with tarps. The hardiest tourists continued to browse as best they could.

Our train arrived first and the train conductors greeted us warmly. They had my souvenir ticket and loaded my bags. I had time to stop at the dining car and purchase an egg salad sandwich and some potato chips before the train filled with travelers. There was a family with a baby who screeched. Not the usual boo-hoo from a baby or toddler but a screech like a parrot. Thankfully the rocking of the train seemed to calm him once we were underway.

Too bad it did not quiet the opinionated American woman with the southern accent who responded to a gentle joke from the conductor, “Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim.” It was apropos of nothing and really awkward. The Chinese-speaking rider across from me obviously understood and caught my eye as if to see if I would respond. I really did not know what to say. I did write in my journal, “Tests for letting people out of the country instead of in.”

View from the train window of Taieri Gorge Railway.
View from the train window.

The train is aptly named as we passed one gorge after another. The Scotch Broom blooms bright yellow on the hillsides among the tor (rock outcropping). Seats are assigned, so if you are keen to take pictures, request a left side window seat en route to Dunedin and opposite on way to Pukerangi, and if you are afraid of falling off the side of roads request an aisle seat.

Gradually the terrain levels out and transforms into bucolic farmland. Finally we reach the outskirts of Dunedin and see homes and businesses. About 1 hour and 45 minutes later, we arrive at the majestic Dunedin Central Train Station. The station is a gorgeous Victorian era monument to railroads and is centrally located in downtown Dunedin.

Dunedin Railway Station

Dunedin Railway clock tower.
Dunedin Railway clock tower.

Dunedin Railways (www.taieri.co.nz) offers several daily trips from the majestic Dunedin Railway Station to Pukerangi (short drive from Middlemarch) or one train to/from Middlemarch on Sunday and Friday. The fare (as of January 2015) is $89 per adult. Tickets can be booked on line and I recommend you purchase in advance especially during summer season.

Give Curling a Push in Central Otago, New Zealand

Indoor Curling Rink in Naseby
Indoor Curling Rink in Naseby

Curling is the winter olympic sport that inspires both fascination and ridicule. Naseby in Central Otago boasts the only Olympic standard indoor curling rink in the southern hemisphere.

Why you may ask? Because Central Otago was settled by Scottish immigrants in the 1840s and they brought their curling stones and love of the sport with them. Most winters the lakes freeze over sufficient to send out the call and assemble teams for a Bonspiel.

The rink provides these rubber covers for your shoes to enable you to walk safely on the ice. No special equipment needed. Dress warmly!
The rink provides these rubber covers for your shoes to enable you to walk safely on the ice. No special equipment needed. Dress warmly!

If you book a tour with Off the Rails, Nick ensures that you enjoy an evening lesson and curling session. If you are unassociated with a tour you may book your own session.

The rules of the game are similar to bowls, kube, or bocce ball. You can throw the stone with your arm or you can push it with a stick. Your teammates can use the broom to sweep the ice and encourage your stone to reach the target. Your opponents can use the broom to sweep the ice and keep the stone moving past the target. I joined some other visitors for a lot of practice and a lot of fun.

If your back is stiff or sore, use the stick to push the stone.
If your back is stiff or sore, use the stick to push the stone.

Afterward we ate dinner at the Ancient Briton pub and restaurant. After a drink at the bar and an interesting conversation with some locals and the Publican, we enjoyed generous portions of a hearty meal not unlike an American Thanksgiving with pork, steak or lamb instead of turkey, and if you are not careful with the same stuffed feeling.

Excellent food and a wide selection of wine, beer and spirits are available.
Excellent food and a wide selection of wine, beer and spirits are available. Plenty of places to dine by the fire.

The evening was a terrific way to unwind after Day Three of cycling. Just a few short kilometers the next day and the Rail Trail adventure is complete. Feeling a touch melancholy.

Wealth of History in Ophir, Central Otago

OPhir Post office

Before I started my second day of cycling on the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand, Nick and I stopped in Ophir. Ancient Ophir was one of Solomon’s ports where rich minerals entered the kingdom. Not surprising then there are towns named Ophir in many goldfields. This small village in Central Otago is rich with historic buildings. This post office is part museum, part post office, part souvenir shop. Buy a postcard and post it from here.

I grew up in Sacramento which is at the heart of the gold story in California. I also spent a lot of time as a teenager in Nevada while crewing for endurance horse riders. I had a memory of Ophir Prison Band but could not remember what it was all about until I asked Google and rediscovered the crazy kazoo band.

There are terrific restored restaurants and accommodation in Ophir. Many of the businesses in Central Otago are for sale, so f you fall in love with the place and lifestyle, make an offer.

Wineries of Central Otago

On the first day of my Otago Central Rail Trail adventure, Nick, my Off the Rails guide, shared his enthusiasm for the local wines. As we passed through Cromwell he pointed out a really large tree in Cromwell that all the teenagers in town used to “park up” (or “make out” in America). When the farmer planted his vineyard he kept the tree and named his winery The Wooing Tree.

Wooing Tree Winery
The Wooing Tree Vineyard in Cromwell, New Zealand.

We continued our drive along the Clutha River and stopped at a lookout for the hydroelectric plant. Looking toward the town of Clyde, Nick pointed out the actor Sam Neill’s vineyard and Two Paddocks winery. I felt like I let Nick down when I told him I was not much of a drinker.

He also gives guests a wine tour if they sign up for the 5 day tour with Off the Rails. Most of the area restaurants offer a selection of local wines and Central Otago boasts some very fine pinot noirs. You can find wine maps online to create your own tour.